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Two years ago, I decided to become a caseworker for the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), to learn first-hand about child welfare policy. At first, I saw it as a daily adventure. But it didn’t take long to see that there was no adventure there. Many of these families were harassed and their children were being swallowed up by an agency that too often operated on virtually unchecked, arbitrary authority.
I resigned in October 1999. In the year I worked there, ACS investigated more than 50,000 reports of child abuse and neglect. I handled about 50 of them in my job as a child protective caseworker in the Manhattan field office. I went all over the city investigating cases. Child protective specialists get about two to three new cases each week, sent to them by their supervisors. Those supervisors have their own supervisors, called managers. It’s managers who sign off on the decisions, most critically, when to put children into foster care.
At any point during a caseworker’s investigation, a manager can order children to be removed from their homes if it is determined that their lives are at risk. But under state law and ACS policy, removals are supposed to be a last resort. These investigations and interventions save children’s lives and protect their well-being all the time.
However, a manager or supervisor has no one to answer to if a child who shouldn’t be in foster care is removed from home anyway. There is no penalty for the wrongful taking of a child, and the pressures to remove are intense.
One of my supervisors reminded me, “Prevention is better than a cure.” And at moments of uncertainty, the mantra was “Cover your ass”—a phrase heard often around the office. It was backed up by a pervasive fear of seeing our photograph in the Daily News as the person who made a fatal error. The first step to protect yourself, I quickly discovered, is to determine that a child is “unsafe” from the onset of an investigation.
To become a caseworker, you do not need to have any experience working with children, or demonstrate that you actually want to work with them. You must simply have a BA and pass a two-part exam. Once hired, caseworkers have six weeks of training. The obsessive concern with liability at the field offices quickly overshadows the reasonable criteria taught for identifying abuse and neglect.
Each case, no matter how trivial, calls for the same 15-page report, but a contradiction at the heart of it all makes the work even more difficult. Caseworkers are trained to be advocates for families. Yet at the same time, they are engaged in an act of betrayal: as they write down statements and observe homes, caseworkers are building a potential court case against them.
By the time I resigned, I felt that the system was working against, instead of for, children. The decline in child deaths and other signs of ACS’s improvements are welcome news. But what kind of model is an agency whose success depends on causing unnecessary pain to children and the parents who want to take care of them? #
Excerpted from City Limits, 12/00, vol. XXV,
*The former caseworker who wrote this article was eager to put her name on it, but following the advice of lawyers, City Limits changed her name.